The early 2000s were a thrill ride. So much bootcut denim, so many blue-tinted wraparound shades. Anastasia was a legitimate pop star for a while. It was also a time in which we were between two generations of celebrity: the dwindling, raised-in-the-dance-halls, old school, patter-heavy famous people, and the from-reality-show-to-megastar nü celebs.
It's a past so near and new that it feels like we can reach back and touch it. But 2001 was a distant time, a different time. It's also when one of the greatest ever anthropological studies of celebrity was broadcast: When Louis Met... Paul and Debbie.
Some background: it is 2001 and Paul Daniels is newly retired. To alleviate the boredom of no longer doing card tricks, he is funding a ballet company run and choreographed by his wife, Debbie McGee. The dynamic is: Paul Daniels basically sits at the kitchen table with his palm over his mouth, occasionally saying how much this is costing him, and Debbie does all the dancing and admin and writes thank you cards to the dancers.
It's fun, but it's sort of not about all that. Really, what When Louis Met... is about is that weird sort of post-career void; about a unique, unbreakable sort of love between two soulmates; and how a tiny and standoffish magician from Middlesbrough became one of the most famous people in the UK.
It's also about Paul Daniels' extremely wavy lemon-yellow bomber jacket, because good god damn. Young men and women in illegal raves all over the UK will be wearing these in honour of Daniels this weekend – just watch.
Anyway, the first notable thing to happen is the cereal caddy. Paul Daniels does not get up and go to the kitchen to choose his cereal of a morning. Debbie McGee brings it to him on a special cart with a freshly poured milk jug on the side. You can tell this isn't a special occasion thing: Daniels barely blinks when it comes through, suggesting this happens on the daily.
Fine, whatever works, as long as everyone's happy. But it's the cereal selection that gets to me: there are only five cereals on the caddy – Frosties, Country Crisp, Cornflakes, Weetabix and Shredded Wheat – and none of them are especially exotic or unmemorable. If you cannot remember Frosties, Country Crisp, Cornflakes, Weetabix and Shredded Wheat are your breakfast options, how can you perform high level close-up magic?
Here is why: because Paul Daniels knows exactly which cereal options he has available to him; he just wants his cereal brought to him on a caddy.
The man is flexing before flexing became a thing. Paul Daniels demands his cereal is presented for appraisal before he consumes it. This is a glimpse of the real man behind the wig. Paul Daniels uses his great wealth and riches to have cereal carried about three metres for him, from the kitchen to the table. This is a very precise glimpse into what I would be like as a millionaire – eccentric but unambitious, irregular but also exceedingly normal – and I respect him for it.
Cut to Lincoln, where Debbie is choreographing the new show. This is the stance Paul Daniels has taken. It is not a helpful stance:
Again, you get the idea that, post-fame and card tricks, Paul Daniels is bored with his lot in life. This is not a fear that any of us will have to face, because retirement age will outstrip life expectancy in about two budgets' time, but Daniels is exhibiting the same sort of traits you get from old, megalomaniac football managers when they retire from the game: without all the 5AM starts and opportunities to shout at Paul Scholes, they become listless, baffled by this sudden flood of free time. Daniels without magic becomes a sort of caricature of an old man – he's holding a mobile phone up to his mouth instead of his ear, telling Debbie he forgot his shoes; he's fussing about in an old warehouse full of his magic tricks; he's silently visiting his brother's house to give him a cheque.
Next, to the set of Ready Steady Cook, where Paul Daniels is deeply inspecting a set of cantilevered doors mounted inside a gigantic pepper, asking how they open.
Paul Daniels on Ready Steady Cook is a semi-bleak insight into his curious relationship with magic. All the way to the studio, people are asking him: Are you going to do any magic, Paul Daniels? Are you going to do any of your magic tricks? And he wanders around the studio before the audience gets there, eyes a thousand yards away from the floor manager explaining his spot points, and he tells them: No, I am not here to do magic. And then Ainsley Harriott turns up and it's game day, and suddenly Paul Daniels is spitting cards from one hand to the next and wowing the crowd. It's the trick and the reveal: all the while pretending he's not going to do a card trick, and then, boomf: four of spades, right in front of your very eyes, all while a double-denim-wearing Anna Ryder Richardson watches on.
Again: the early 2000s were really weird.
At the core of When Louis Met..., though, is Paul and Debbie's enduring, one-off love. On one hand: when he wants Debbie and they are in a crowded room together, he literally whistles for her like a deaf dog, which is generally seen as bad. On the other: they are one of the only truly happy couples ever broadcast on TV. Giggling fits, married-for-20-plus-years-and-still-flirting moments, that weird symbiotic reliance loop you only get with deeply entrenched, 100 percent trust couples: Paul and Debbie had it all. Paul came out of retirement to tour again so he could fund Debbie's ballet dream. When audience numbers are low, he runs to a student bar and hustles together a bunch of lost-looking undergraduates to put bums on seats to view Debbie's hard work. He's crabby and stoic, but every action he seems to take is in service to the woman he loves. To borrow the Tumblr parlance: Paul Daniels and Debbie McGee are goals af.
It all crests at a final meal, where a visibly pissed Theroux says, "A genuinely happy couple I think are a rare thing," and Daniels kicks right off. "No it's not! No, I don't think it's a rare thing," he says. "There's literally billions of us out there." And then, in full Paul Daniels style, he shits on the sentiment entirely by saying: "And it's all the little manky miserable people who make the biggest shout."
You can say a lot about Paul Daniels – he had some really weird opinions about how lordship was passed down through genetics, he hated Labour, he was a climate change denier, he made a very inadvisable tweet about racist etymology back in 2011, he sincerely wore a wig for a really long in the 80s and 90s – but on the whole he was a man whose fame crested at a weird moment in time, who retired just before Fame Academy, before this new hyper-fame we have, before the true onslaught of reality TV. Lost in a strange new world where saying "open sesame" to automatic doors and having "not a lot" as a catchphrase gave way to wry documentaries hosted by an arch pisstaker.
Paul Daniels was one of the last old school celebrities – those who made their bones on piers and with touring shows, before BBC primetime beckoned then busted – and they're not coming back. Forsyth is the last bastion. They had a glad-handing toolset that doesn't exist any more. They were entertainers in the most straightforward meaning of the word. Like them or not, they are dying out.
Consider: in 50 years, will we mourn in the same way when the slightly more memorable one from a 2000s girlband clatters into the grave? Will we pour one out for whichever X-Factor runner-up this year is given a late-night ITV2 presenting gig? We won't. So cherish this 45-minute insight, this portrait of a fallen king: there won't be another one like it in our lifetimes.
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